Nostalgic style? Lo-fi surroundings? Questionable dance moves? We must be in Dalston! Sadly, though, new operetta The Dowager’s Oyster seems to be the least self-aware thing in the district tonight.
Highly strung widow Lady Tindale and her dowdy daughter Cynthia have escaped to the l’ile d’Oléron to exchange complaints and irritations. The Dowager can’t bear the ‘below par’ automobile (who can blame her, when it’s made of three chairs) and fears there will be no hot water, and brattish Cynthia so wewwy despwritly misses Freddy, her husband to be, who happens to be cavorting in Morocco with his secret lover. Their maid Genevieve is in tow to carry the luggage, run the baths and make the coffee just right.
Three characters named Lady Tindale, Cynthia and Genevieve are heading towards a punchline, as they fussily Charleston onto the stage after bustling into the space like latecomers. With moments – and names – like this, it’s easy to believe that the role of this operetta is to revive and challenge the flaws of this kiss-me-quick whodunnit – but, like a distressed pair of jeans in the window of a Kingsland concept store, this production was made to be dated.
Once the Brits land on foreign shores, fellow islanders are mocked for being fat, over-wealthy, or ‘just French’; later, a supporting character makes an underhanded joke that Freddy and his male lover will “have a gay old time in Morocco’; a slide whistle and whoopee cushion sound as the Dowager falls to her death, undermining the drama of her lowering cries. Indeed, dust gathers over The Dowager’s Oyster long before Cynthia takes her place as the victim of the last half-hearted laugh, with a joke ripped straight out of UniLad: no wonder her husband was snogging someone else, he was “far too handsome” for her.
Suspended seagulls, a palm-tree made of boxes, a set of white garden furniture and some wooden signs make up the entirety of the thrifty backdrop – which sets the scene with as much sophistication as a seaside photo cut-out board. The lyrics also lack elegance, as characters bounce up and down in their imaginary automobile, all thoroughly hammy under Louis Mander and Jack Cherry’s direction. “Bippity, boppity”, they trill as they head on their stationary journey with varying levels of excitement and irritation. “The engine gurgles, we brake, we shake”, they continue – miming each action as if teaching toddlers new words in a community singalong.
That all being said, it’s lovely to see composer and musical director Mander turning to face actors and band in turn, bringing a certain vitality to the process of putting on this large-scale art form in a small-scale venue. While it’s a shame that percussionist Jacob Powell is left in near-complete darkness, and Karen Street and most of her accordion are hidden behind a wall, the inclusion of such a proficient ensemble is the saving grace in this flaccid and synthetically-aged operetta.